Mihir Bose: Why the system, not Hodgson, is to blame for England’s problems

One of Roy Hodgson’s favourite writers, Stefan Sweig, killed himself in Petropolis, a town near Rio in 1942 despairing of where European civilisation and culture was headed. Now what has happened to Hodgson in Brazil does not bear any comparison with what Sweig was going through as the fight with Nazism raged in Europe with no definite indication that this evil could be defeated.

Those of us who write about sport often use absurd, theatrical, language particularly when treating a sporting defeat as a national disaster. We are not the only ones. In Brazil the defeat at the hands of Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup led to a term called Marcanazo. It represents the hurt from this unexpected football defeat and is so deeply felt that the country has never forgotten what happened in that match. Endless books and films have been made about the 1950 match.

The author Nelson Rodrigues wrote, “Everywhere has its irremediable national catastrophe, something like a Hiroshima. Our catastrophe, our Hiroshima, was the defeat by Uruguay in 1950.” Barbosa, the goalkeeper who let in the decisive second Uruguayan goal, said before he died, a penniless devastated man, that: “Under Brazilian law the maximum sentence is thirty years. But my sentence has been for fifty.” But while this football match may define the Brazilian nation it is worth emphasising that football, despite what Bill Shankly said, is not more important than life and death.

However, it would be entirely reasonable if Hodgson should now be turning back to Sweig and his books as he considers what happened to the England team in Brazil. But as this very literate and thoughtful man does so we should consider what we need to do with him and why we need to look beyond who is the England manager to the wider system of English football.

The cry has inevitably gone up that all that needs to be done is to change the manager. Yes, Hodgson may have made some tactical mistakes but England’s dismal performance was not due to that. The problem goes deeper, all the way back to the grassroots of English football and is about how we coach our youngsters. To produce good footballers who can compete at the highest international level this grassroots system needs to be nurtured and looked after. What is more it needs to be renewed every few years with new ideas and coaching methods. This England has failed to do that for several decades. Occasionally the odd brilliant player escapes the system and emerges but the fundamental changes that are necessary have never taken place.

And just to make sure I have not got this wrong I went back to an interview I did with Glen Hoddle just before the start of last season. It is worth producing my questions and his answers which have enormous significance to the England managerial situation.

Me: I remember interviewing Berti Vogts just after we didn’t qualify for the 1994 World Cup and he said that after the 1966 defeat Germany recognised the old system of playing on the streets didn’t work and there had to be changes. The Germans changed and we didn’t change. But why didn’t we change? I mean you were the England manager, couldn’t you have changed things?

Hoddle: No, because that’s not the job spec of the England manager. This should have been changed in the 70s, in the late 70s and 80s when I was playing. We should have looked at it and learnt from that decade. We got stuck in a four, four, two system. Sir Alf won the World Cup but in doing so he took away the wingers.

Me: Wingless wonders!

Hoddle: Yeah, that was fine for that era, it worked. But what we didn’t do as coaches and as the FA we didn’t advance from there. What we didn’t do was to take that four, four, two with a very rigid playing system and make it different during the late 70s or the early 70s. We got stuck for 30 years plus in the same system. That is the key to where we went wrong and that is why the kids were brought up with the wrong philosophy. In Argentina, in Brazil, in France, in Holland, in Spain, in Africa, what is the first philosophy?

Me: What is the first philosophy?

Hoddle: What is the first philosophy?

Me: Well, to learn how to control the ball?

Hoddle: Absolutely! That is the culture and that is the first thing that comes to those kids, all the coaches’ minds and, more importantly, the federations. Technically how are we going to deal with the ball? In England since the 60s, 70s, 80s, right the way through our philosophy hasn’t been like that. We were suspicious of the creative technical player. Not just me, but others, were called luxury players – the guy that keeps giving the ball away surely he’s the luxury player. That’s the philosophy we have had, the culture we have had for too many years. Our kids are as talented as the Spanish kids or the French kids or the Dutch kids, it’s the system and how we teach them to perform and get the best out of them with the ball that we have shied away from. And I will tell you why. In the 80s, certainly, I can talk about the late 70s and the 80s, there were lazy coaches in this country. When I say lazy coaches, there were certain coaches who would play a long ball in the air and squeeze up to the half way line. You didn’t have to coach that, that’s an easy one to play; it’s a get out for any coach in the world.

Me: If you emerged surely the English system is not completely bankrupt?

Hoddle: No, but we need 15 of them in every age group coming through. Do you see what I’m saying? Your Paul Gascoynes come through every now and again. Maybe a Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney. Spain has got a multitude of these players. Brazil has got them. France have had them. We need more choice. We had a school of coaches and managers that wanted to play a direct game of football and win football matches by missing out technique. They went with strength and power and they got the ball quickly and as far away from their goal as they possibly could. The ball was in the air and then they would squeeze up and try and condense the space, condense the creative footballer and try and win the ball in the last third of the field. That’s how we played through in the 80s. That was the FA philosophy. Look at Charles Hughes (FA’s technical director of the 80s). He said you only need five passes to score a goal. Charles Hughes tried to convince everyone that’s how Brazil played and I scratched my head. To this day I scratch my head.

Me: Has that FA philosophy changed?

Hoddle: No it hasn’t. It is changing but we’re still a long way behind the rest of the world. For me even at 15 and 16 we’re still playing in too big an area of the pitch. We have to have smaller pitches. We’ve got to have a thousand touches of the ball every Sunday morning instead of a hundred touches. We’ve got to play against a wall again. Six generations of players have missed out on playing against a wall. That’s all these great players ever did – playing against the wall. You play left foot, right foot – I spent hour after hour as a kid. I spent hours from 11 until 16 with Tottenham in the gym. Every time I went on Tuesday and Thursday nights that is what I did right the way through from when I was 12 until I was 16.

Me: How far do you think the England team has fallen?

Hoddle: Technically there’s two ways of looking at it. We will always be a difficult side to play against, absolutely, and no one will say I’m glad we’re playing England today, no. Are we a team that can go and win matches and outplay most teams? No. In every level we’re becoming less and less and less so. Technically this is a long term thing.

Me: The Germans have changed. The Germans are nearest to us in many ways, can we not learn from them?

Hoddle: But their system has done it for them. They changed it in the late 60s/early 70s and they changed it again recently and I think you will find the Dutch did it way back. The Dutch did it in such a way that every coach had to coach in a certain way. The players had to all play in different positions, even though you may be a centre forward. They have a qualified coach in every county – imagine that in England – in every town, in every district, that’s what they’ve got in Holland. I know it’s a smaller country but they’ve got top quality coaches coaching at that level. What have we done in our football clubs? I’ll tell you what we’ve done for the 8 year olds up to the 14/15 year olds, we have them coached by coaches who we pay peanuts, absolute peanuts. So you’re getting lesser quality coaches and we’ve done it for years. I said to Daniel Levy [Tottenham chairman] when I was there you need to pay a really good amount of money for coaches to deal with your 10s, your 12s, your 13s and 14s. That’s where your philosophy has to change. We have to get the best coaches and we have to have people who are mentors that can coach the coaches and teach them how to coach the kids. Then you might start to change and make technical footballers. If we don’t make the technical footballers we need for the future in 40 years time we will still be saying the same things. That little bit of water saved us in the war but it has cut us away from a lot of things.

Me: When do think England’s hurt would be over? This hurt that we haven’t won anything since 1966.

Hoddle: When can you see us winning something at the moment? It’s very difficult in South America. No European side has ever won there. We’ve got, of course, to qualify from our group first. I think we will but it might be tougher than we thought it would be. But I hope we do and I really think we’ve got enough good players to qualify, no doubt about it. [Our conversation took place months before the draw]. But I think we should be planning for the Euros, not necessarily for the World Cup.

And Hoddle is right. We should be looking to the future not making a knee-jerk reaction to the defeat in Brazil. We should stop this witch hunt of Hodgson as if with a different selection and a different tactical position for Wayne Rooney, or by making his piece with John Terry and recalling the Chelsea captain, everything would have been rosy for England. What nonsense. Hodgson has to work with the material he has. He does not make the system. If England are to succeed the system must change.

But the problem is there are too many vested interests preventing the changes required and there is neither the will nor the mechanism for the FA to force the changes through. Greg Dyke , the FA chairman, is trying but the way his initial proposals have been received it is clear the winds of change will not blow very far.

I fear that 40 years down the line, when the World Cup returns to Brazil, the same lament that Hoddle made a year ago will be made. Unless that is we get an English football revolution but then the English have never been one to take to revolutions.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on Twitter @mihirbose